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Archive for the ‘Prayer and Contemplation’ Category

Here’s a glimpse into how connected my world has become.

A few months ago, my girlfriend Lisa Washio, co-director of The Pink House in Fresno, California (an InterVarsity Urban Projects program that immerses young adults in a 10-month residential apprenticeship in biblical community, urban ministry, and leadership development) called me from a pub in New Orleans. She was hanging out with interviewees Mike Brantley of Communitas New Orleans (Episode 21) and Scott Bessenecker, InterVarsity’s associate director of missions (Episode 29), plus other members of Communitas. Also in attendance was our mutual friend Josh Harper of New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland, California (Episode 16), InterVarsity’s national coordinator for Urban Projects. As well, there were Phileena and Chris Heuertz, established leaders within the new friar organization Word Made Flesh, who are presently embarking on a new venture that I’m very excited about, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, through which they hope to help people integrate contemplative spirituality with social activism. In fact, I was eager to meet Phileena and Chris in my travels, but their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, was too far from anywhere by bicycle!

So what am I doing now, six months after the journey’s end?

First of all, I want to say that it has been a journey in itself readjusting to ordinary pedestrian life after 14 months on the road. Thankfully, I had the close company of friends in Collegeville, Minnesota, to lighten the burden of transitioning. Even so, the visceral sense of not knowing who I was or what direction my life was headed was fairly acute for the first couple of months. In this condition, I found it extremely difficult to reengage theological studies at Saint John’s School of Theology for one last semester. Thankfully, I did manage to complete my classwork, yet my eye was more focused on where the real fruits of the tour were emerging. In previous posts, I’ve alluded to Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the “Valley of Dry Bones” as characterizing my own experience of being stripped and given new life in the process of making this bicycle tour. This sense of being given a new life only increased after the traveling ceased. In fact, in a fairly short period of time, I’ve gone from a dizzying sense of groundlessness to a new inner stability, interwoven with new relationships and opportunities, about which I will say more below.

Regarding my thoughts in response to what I learned and experienced on tour, I resonate strongly with a chapter I came across in an anthology of reflections on centering prayer, “Three Contemplative Waves,” by centering prayer teacher David Frenette (see Thomas Keating, et al, Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation: Writings on Centering Prayer [New York: Lantern Books, 2008], 9-55). Frenette’s basic thesis is that, over the past half century, the Christian contemplative tradition has undergone a profound renewal and transformation toward what he calls “incarnational contemplation”; that is, toward an emphasis on integrating contemplative practices such as centering prayer in the context of the everyday life concerns of work, marriage, family, and social justice. He identifies the first two phases of this renewal—firstly, developing new ways of understanding the relationship between contemplation and various areas of human concern, including integrating the insights of developmental and transpersonal psychology; and secondly, developing practice forms accessible to people living in the world—with the work of Cistercian monks Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating. Significantly, Frenette believes that we are currently on the cusp of a third phase of contemplative renewal, namely, the emergence of lay intentional communities that support and express these new patterns of contemplative living in the world.

Now, Frenette is writing from a different but related context than that of the majority of communities I’ve visited. Whereas the contemplative renewal Frenette traces has its roots firmly within the monastic tradition (most of its seminal teachers, for instance, have been monks—Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, John Main, et al), the new monasticism-new friars movements I’ve covered are emerging from outside the classic monastic and mendicant orders. Whereas incarnational contemplation until now has focused primarily on interior practices and personal transformation, the greatest strength of the new monasticism-new friars, as I see it, has been a deep commitment to embodying the radical social teachings of gospels, most often in poor urban neighborhoods. Whereas incarnational contemplation has thus far developed structures for local support groups and extended retreats, the new monasticism-new friars have focused on communal forms of social engagement. One other contrast that I believe is particularly relevant here is that of demographics: while both incarnational contemplation and the new monasticism-new friars are fairly diverse, their demographic centers of gravity split between older Catholics and mainline Protestants on the incarnational contemplation side of the coin, and younger evangelicals among the new monasticism-new friars.

From the point of view of the monasteries themselves, at least in the Christian West, there is the related phenomenon of the vitality of many monastic houses tipping more and more toward an engagement with the wider world. Many monasteries now have far more Oblates (lay people who commit themselves to living out the spirituality of the monastery in the world) than in-house monks and nuns. For example, at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California—of which I am an Oblate—there are presently approximately 50 Oblates for every monk. This widening gap underlies Ivan Kauffman’s conviction, which I share, that the future of monasticism in the West lies in the direction of celibate monastics forging new collaborative relationships with lay people.

So here is my reading of the situation in a nutshell: On the one hand, many monasteries—their numbers shrinking and median age rising—are leaning uncertainly into an unknown future, while some lay or “incarnational” contemplatives grope toward yet-to-be-determined communal forms of life. On the other hand, a vibrant, youthful network of mostly evangelical Christians is busy at work experimenting with structures for intentional community, seeking roots in ancient tradition while embodying fresh responses to present circumstances. And if there’s anything that I have to speak into this situation, after having explored communities on both sides of this equation, it is this: Monasteries and their associated movements stand to benefit profoundly from the youthful idealism, fresh perspectives, courage, and creative imagination that I see permeating the new monasticism-new friars. The new monasticism-new friars stand to benefit profoundly from the maturity, depth of prayerful interiority, historical rootedness, and accumulated wisdom of the classic Christian monastic and contemplative traditions. Hence, I see vast potential waiting to be tapped through forging enduring collaborative relationships among these various Christian movements, all of whom lay some claim to historical monasticism.

I have no general prescription for how this relationship-building might unfold, except to say that I believe that people like Phileena and Chris Heuertz, who are already rooted in both worlds, are in an ideal position to step into this creative overlap and make things happen; for surely, the Spirit broods over this field of possibility, awaiting willing hands and hearts. Phileena is especially well-positioned as someone steeped in the teachings and practice of centering prayer and widely respected as a leader within the new monasticism-new friars. As well, Lisa and I are already beginning to envision possibilities for a community or center of some kind in Fresno. We are both Camaldolese-Benedictine Oblates (or at least, Lisa will be shortly), and whereas my experience and training lie mostly in the classic monastic and contemplative vein, Lisa is more firmly grounded in urban ministry along the lines of the new monasticism-new friars. And, she has deep relational roots in Fresno. Hence, we intend to draw upon our many relationships in the area, maintaining close ties with nearby New Camaldoli Hermitage, to develop a way of life in community that integrates monastic rhythms and contemplative practice with service and hospitality to our neighbors.

At this point, our aspirations are in the early germination stage, and the specifics of what we decide to do will be the outcome of a long process of prayerful discernment and consultation; or, to paraphrase Scott Yetter of Nehemiah House, of listening for what God is doing in the neighborhood and how we can participate. For now, I am back at New Camaldoli Hermitage with a load of books underarm that I need to read for comprehensive exams in order to complete my monastic studies degree. Hopefully, I will finish by May and will then make my way to Fresno. I have no timeline to offer as yet for our endeavors, but I will check in periodically on this blog with updates (if you haven’t inferred this yet, I am an irregular blogger; hence, if you want to be kept informed, I would recommend signing up for an e-mail subscription at the top of the sidebar to the right).

In the meantime, I will continue to watch in wonder and gratitude at how God breathes new life into weary limbs and weaves meaningful connections out of what once appeared to be mere disjointed bones.

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When I began my formation a decade ago at New Camaldoli Hermitage, I was torn. On the one hand, I felt a clear, persistent intuition that I needed to undergo the monastic formation process. On the other, I sensed that this formation would not lead to permanent vows. In fact, I sensed that the long-range-goal toward which I was being prompted was to live and serve in some form of lay community later in life. Having already lived in a Zen Buddhist community and an ecovillage, my imagination was ripe with a sense of possibility in that direction, and formal training in a Christian monastic community seemed an ideal next step. I discussed this tension with my monastic mentors and was assured that discernment was inherent to the formation process; I didn’t need confidence that I would finally take permanent vows, but I did need to keep an open mind and heart and remain faithful to where the process leads.

In the end, I spent 4 ½ years in formation, having taken temporary vows, and left at peace and in enduring friendship with the monks. In fact, I still consider New Camaldoli Hermitage my spiritual home and spend time there every chance I get. Now that nearly five years have passed since leaving the monastery, including almost seven semesters at Saint John’s School of Theology and this past year’s bicycle tour of communities, the goal of a lay contemplative community has never felt closer. Aside from New Camaldoli Hermitage, I take special inspiration from my year living at the Cambridge Zen Center, a community of primarily lay people in bustling Central Square, Cambridge, MA, equidistant from Harvard and MIT. The combination of intensive, shared contemplative practice, work, and service to the larger community I experienced there convinces me that a similar model could take root in Christian form. It’s no great leap of the imagination to envision the ethos and disciplines I learned in my Christian monastic formation flourishing in such a lay context.

Now a certain disconnect enters the picture: with the exception of the San Francisco Zen Center (which is Buddhist) and Hesed Community (which is non-residential), none of the communities I visited on this tour have a strong contemplative dimension (monasteries aside). There are at least two reasons for this choice. The first is the recognition that I’ve followed the contemplative thread quite deeply in my life, and now I seek to balance that with a social justice focus, which many of the communities I visited did embody. Secondly…well, I’ve often recalled the story I’ve heard attributed to the Sufi tradition, of a fellow searching vigorously for something on the sidewalk under a lamplight. Everything else around him is shrouded in darkness. Someone comes upon him and asks:

“What are you looking for?”

“My key.”

“Where did you lose it?”

“Over there in the dark street.”

“Then why are you looking under the lamppost!?”

“Because I can see over here in the light!”

In a sense, focusing so much on highly socially-engaged new monasticism/new friars communities as I did had a similar quality, of looking slightly off-center of where my own aspirations lie. I was attracted to these communities in part because they have a similar grass-roots, experimental feel that I’d known in the ecovillage. But really, these communities are simply where the action’s at. This is where the light is shining. This is where, I believe, the seeds of new forms of religious life have been fruitfully sown and are beginning to sprout. These community-sprouts, moreover, attract me as wonderful containers wherein shared lives of integrated action and contemplation can flourish. Therefore, putting together the pieces of valuing intentional communities as centers of education and formation, and the desire to strengthen the contemplative dimension of these new Christian communities, I am developing a contemplative curriculum that can be integrated into an intentional community’s formation process. I am presently honing the specifics of “the what” (the content) of this curriculum and “the where”  it will be implemented (a specific community, hopefully). As I am still waiting to confirm certain possibilities, I can’t divulge details as yet. But I’ll leave you with a hint…

I’ll be in California for Christmas!

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Having just come from Koinonia Farm and gleaned from conversations there that, among some in the New Monasticism movement, there is a growing interest in connecting more deeply with the classic monastic tradition, I was eager to bring “old-school” monastics into the conversation. Here I speak with Cistercian monk Michael Lautieri, OCSO, current vocation director of Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. In our conversation, I asked Michael how neo-monastic communities might better learn from monasteries and the monastic tradition. He offers two concrete possibilities—monastics living temporarily with neo-monastic communities as teachers, and core members of neo-monastic communities spending time in temporary monastic guest programs such as that offered by Monastery of the Holy Spirit. In regard to learning from monasticism, Michael stresses the need to actually experience monastic life firsthand in order to understand the monastic charism. And while he emphasizes monasticism’s adaptability and flexibility according to culture, circumstance, and religion, he’s also clear on what he considers the constitutive elements of any form of monasticism: prayer, silence, solitude, manual labor, and community. Michael also shares his thoughts on what he anticipates for the future of monasticism (mirroring Ivan Kauffman’s conviction that the future of monastic communities lies in stronger bonds with lay people) and his enthusiasm over the broad interest among lay people today in incorporating a depth of spirituality into their lives through learning monastic values and practices.

Embedded in this interview are two questions that have come to the fore for me over the course of this tour of communities. The first question is, simply: what is monasticism? One concern I have is that the New Monasticism movement has been re-defining the very meaning of the word, often with little concrete input from or experience of the classic monastic tradition. While this re-definition process from a fresh perspective expands the monastic imagination, so to speak, sometimes I have difficulty understanding just what’s monastic about particular expressions of the New Monasticism. Hence, I want to carry this question of what constitutes the essentials of monasticism into future interviews with monastics “new” and “old,” and especially into my Monastic Studies program at Saint John’s School of Theology upon my return this fall. Thus far, I’ve received three direct responses to this question: Mary Ewing Stamps, leader of the Methodist-Benedictine Saint Brigid of Kildare Monastery, emphasized the structural elements of stability of place, a leader, and a rule of life (incidentally, even though much of her own formation took place in a Benedictine monastic guest program similar to that offered by Monastery of the Holy Spirit, she prefers the idea of monastics coming to live as teachers with new communities in order to preserve the importance of a sense of place). Camaldolese-Benedictine monk Cyprian Consiglio, speaking from the eremitical (hermit) tradition and from years of involvement in monastic inter-religious dialogue, named the primacy of the interior life and contemplative practice as comprising the core of monasticism. And here, again, speaking from within the Cistercian tradition, Michael identifies the essential elements of monasticism as prayer, silence, solitude, manual labor, and community.

What these three monastics witness to is the fact that there is no definitive answer to the question of what constitutes the essentials of monasticism. Rather, there are many perspectives from within a shared body of experience that constellates around certain key features, while allowing for much diversity. Hence, I think Michael makes a crucially important point here: that monastic life cannot be adequately understood from the outside; it has to be lived. And to reiterate an observation I’ve made in earlier posts, this gap of experience between the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism contrasts with new expressions of Buddhist communities in the West, in so much as the latter have mostly developed directly from what has been passed down from Asian monastic teachers; the lineage of tradition remains unbroken. Which brings me to my second question, reflecting my conviction that the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism have much to offer one another:

How might this gap of experience between the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism be bridged? And why? What does each have to offer the other?

Stay tuned…

Books mentioned or alluded to in the interview: Monastic Practice, by Charles Cummings, OCSOConsecrated Religious Life: The Changing Paradigms, by Diarmuid O’Murchu 

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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In this second half of my conversation with Bren Dubay, we speak of the rich tapestry of relations Koinonia Farm now enjoys, with communities already mentioned in the previous episode (Jubilee Partners, Reba Place Fellowship, Church of the Servant King) as well as with the Bruderhof, an early 20th century addition to the Anabaptist communal family tree (which also includes the Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, among others). Formed in Germany on the cusp of the rise of Nazism, the Bruderhof were expelled from their native country after refusing to allow Nazi teachers to instruct their children. Finding their way first to England, then Paraguay, the Bruderhof finally set roots in the United States with the help of Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm in the 1950s. Here, Bren tells the story of how this friendship between the two communities has recently, serendipitously been rekindled, and the intimate bond of mutual help and learning that’s rapidly emerging.

Koinonia Farm has also been adopted by the contemporary New Monasticism movement, who consider Koinonia one of its pioneering forerunners. In fact, Bren is part of a network of new monastic communities currently exploring how they might strengthen relations among themselves. She also expresses her strong conviction that this movement’s future lies not only in strengthened bonds with one another, but with the classic monastic tradition. To this end, the core members of Koinonia are currently engaged in a close reading of the Rule of Saint Benedict, with commentary by Joan Chittister, OSB, and plan to continue this practice of shared reading and discussion with other monastic literature. Several members also retreat at nearby Cistercian Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA.

Members of Koinonia Farm with Bruderhof Friends

In addition to these topics, Bren and I discuss communication and trust in community, and how she looks forward to the collective maturity that comes only with time, longstanding commitment, and patience.

What excites me most about Koinonia Farm at this time in their history is this unique confluence of influences: of its own profound spiritual legacy interfacing with that of the Bruderhof, representing the classic Anabaptist tradition (what Ivan Kauffman refers to as the “old” new monasticism), and the younger generation of communitarians involved in the New Monasticism. Koinonia Farm also exhibits the strongest inclination I’ve seen thus far toward seeking ways to learn from and build concrete relationships with the classic monastic tradition. Taken together, these factors render Koinonia Farm a key community to watch as the New Monasticism movement continues to evolve and reach for greater maturity and stability.

Other people and resources mentioned in this interview: Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, School(s) for Conversion.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia, was founded in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England, with the intention of being a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God” and helping the region’s poor, struggling farming families. Foremost among the biblical values they sought to embody were economic sharing among themselves and with their neighbors, racial equality and reconciliation, and compassionate nonviolence. Due to their pacifist stance during World War II and inter-racial composition, the community quickly gained a reputation as an irritant to the surrounding culture. In fact, during much of the 50s and 60s, Koinonia Farm endured all manner of persecution, including cross-burnings, death threats, gunfire, expulsion from local churches, fire-bombing, and a prolonged economic boycott by local businesses. Undaunted by these trials, in the late 60s, Koinonia Farm began the partnership housing movement, building affordable homes for low-income local families. Seeing the global potential of this movement, community members Millard and Linda Fuller went on to expand the endeavor beyond its local scale, giving birth to Koinonia’s most famous contribution, Habitat for Humanity International.

According to Bren Dubay, steward (vowed member) and current Director of Koinonia Farm, while the community enjoyed a certain kind of expansion and growth during the partnership housing era, the very forces underlying that expansion were at the same time subtly eroding the original communal vision. Short-term volunteers swelled the ranks through the late 60s and 70s, motivated more by a particular cause than by the aspiration to embody Christian koinonia, or community, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. As one longtime member succinctly described the scene, “The tail began to wag the dog.” Finally, in 1993, with the decision to reorganize Koinonia according to a more conventional non-profit business model, what remained of the original communal pattern of life was dismantled. Consequently, Koinonia’s focus grew more diffuse, and financial losses were suffered in the process of moving from a common-purse economy to paid employees. By 2003, it was clear that a fresh vision and new leadership for the community were needed. To this end, the Board of Directors sought to hire a new Executive Director. That’s where Bren enters the story.

Prior to her arrival at Koinonia Farm, Bren Dubay had worked and served as a spiritual director, retreat leader, playwright, Montessori educator, fundraiser, and development consultant. In May of 2003, she rather innocently took a group of students on a field trip to Americus, Georgia, to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. As they were preparing to leave, she reluctantly accepted an invitation to take the students to Koinonia Farm, Habitat’s birthplace. Unbeknownst to her, this visit would trigger a series of events that have since turned her life in a surprising, radically new direction. Within a year, in May of 2004, Bren moved to Koinonia as its new Executive Director. Within another year’s time, she was leading the community in a retrieval of its original communal inspiration.

Koinonia Farm Members and Friends

In our conversation, the first of two podcast episodes with Bren, she tells the story of her entering the stream of Koinonia’s rich, diverse history, the decision to return to the original communal vision and how that process has unfolded over the course of 7 years thus far, challenges and mistakes made along the way, and her own sense of inner peace amid the difficulties. We speak of particular changes, such as restructuring the Board of Directors to include one member apiece from 3 other Christian intentional communities; namely, Jubilee Partners in Comer, GA (a community that welcomes refugees from war-torn countries, founded by members of Koinonia in the late 70s), Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago, IL (inspired by Koinonia), and Church of the Servant King in Eugene, OR. Finally, Bren shares her joy in the revitalization of the community’s internship program as an expression of the founders’ intention that Koinonia serve as a “school of discipleship.” Through this program, and through other forms of hospitality, Koinonia Farm welcomes and feeds the spiritual hunger of a wide diversity of people, young and old and in between, of all manner of religious faiths or none at all.

What strikes me most in this part of my conversation with Bren is that hers is clearly a vocation story: of an unexpected invitation, of wrestling with the tension between wanting to say “no” yet knowing (without knowing why) to say “yes,” and of an underlying peace and mysterious satisfaction even through difficulties and trials. There’s humility and gratitude in the recognition of having received a graced opportunity to serve; and a posture of faith, even though the way forward may seem anything but clear at times. To my mind, these are the marks of true servant leadership, the branch grafted onto the Vine, and a vital sign of hope for Koinonia Farm’s uncharted future.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Catherine Rundle with Husband Alastair (left), Family, and Friends

InnerCHANGE emerged in the mid-1980s from the aspiration of John Hayes. While living and ministering with his family among immigrant neighbors in the most poverty-stricken, overcrowded street in Orange County, California, John recognized the urgent need to better enable missionaries to share more concretely in the lives and struggles of the poor to whom they minister. Identifying as “a Christian order among the poor,” ecumenical in composition, and affiliated with the larger mission organization CRM: Church Resource Ministries, InnerCHANGE communities have since taken root in impoverished neighborhoods in South and East Africa, Central and South America, London, Cambodia, Bangladesh, as well as a handful of urban centers in the United States.

I first encountered writing by and about InnerCHANGE while reading of the New Friars, a movement of Christian missionary communities seeking to live more integrally among the poor, in part through appropriating the wisdom of the classic religious orders. I was particularly impressed by the maturity reflected in their writing, a clear awareness and responsiveness to historical, economic, and political conditions, and the intention to create sustainable ways of life and lifelong formation in community.  In fact, I had met members of InnerCHANGE years before at New Camaldoli Hermitage, again impressed by their intentionality in integrating solitude and contemplative disciplines into their lives. Perhaps the most significant note of appreciation I heard, however, came from my monastic formator, Michael Fish OSB Cam., who gave a talk at one of InnerCHANGE’s recent annual retreats. After the retreat, he spoke excitedly to me of his impression that such emerging communities represent a springtime of renewal in the church. Hence, I had already developed an appreciation and curiosity before meeting InnerCHANGE members on their own turf, first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles. In particular, as a former member of a monastic order, I’ve found InnerCHANGE’s capacity for liberally incorporating the creativity and spontaneity of their members a breath of fresh air, a capacity Catherine Rundle compares to the necessary messiness of the artistic process, equally applicable to life and ministry.

InnerCHANGE from CRM InnerCHANGE on Vimeo.

Catherine Rundle’s story was grafted onto that of InnerCHANGE when an urban mission internship in North Hollywood, California, put her in contact with longtime InnerCHANGE Los Angeles members Jude and John Tiersma-Watson. While this internship (unaffiliated with InnerCHANGE) provided the motivation for a way of life among the poor, she and her husband Alastair still lacked the tools, ongoing mentoring, and enduring context to make that happen in an intensive way beyond the period of the internship itself. Hence, in 1999 Catherine and Alastair joined InnerCHANGE as apprentices, therein finding the guidance, maturity, ongoing formation, and  modeling they sought from those who had walked the path well ahead of them. However, an unexpected medical condition compelled them to move to Texas after three years, where they bore their two children surrounded by the loving embrace of extended family members. Six years after their move, having served as outreach pastors for a Presbyterian church, they discerned the call to return to InnerCHANGE and to Los Angeles specifically, where they continue to live and grow and learn what it means to live out God’s tender heart for the poor.

In our conversation, Catherine and I discuss how she’s been transformed by her relationships with the poor, her initial entry and return to InnerCHANGE, the significance of raising a family as members of a diverse religious order, raising financial support for her life and ministry, and her love for the city of Los Angeles where she’s chosen to set down roots. She speaks of her special passion for imparting a sense of personal dignity and value to others through writing their stories in light of scripture and God’s love for them. Finally, Catherine gives a taste of her practice of prayer and praise walking, of sharing holy attentiveness, blessing, and inspired song as she walks the streets of her Westlake/McArthur Park neighborhood.

To learn more about InnerCHANGE, see John Hayes’ book, Sub-Merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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S. Barbara Hazzard, OSB, entered religious life in 1954 with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Oakland, California. In the wake of the ferment following Vatican II, S. Barbara left her first religious community in the early 1970s to embark on a search for a deeper life of prayer both for herself and those to whom she ministered. This period of searching took a decisive turn when she discovered the work of the late Benedictine Fr. John Main in 1982. Visiting John Main’s experimental urban monastery in Montreal shortly thereafter, S. Barbara found a model of contemplative community that resonated with her own aspirations and the needs she perceived in the wider church. Upon her return to Oakland, she formed the Hesed Community along similar lines, as an expression of the Benedictine monastic tradition (Hesed is affiliated with Saint Benedict’s Monastery and Saint John’s Abbey, neighboring Benedictine communities in central Minnesota) committed to the teaching and practice Christian meditation.

John Main, OSB, was a pivotal figure in the revival of the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer in the late 20th century. Similar to the paths of Trappist monks Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, John Main’s exposure to the spiritual traditions of the Far East compelled him to dig deeper into his own contemplative heritage as a Christian monk.  Rediscovering the teachings on Christian meditation as taught by John Cassian in his Conferences (compiled in the 5th century as a synthesis of the Egyptian desert monastic tradition, foundational to Christian monasticism East and West) and the anonymous author of the 14th century book of instruction in contemplative prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing, John Main developed and taught a practice of Christian meditation accessible to those leading busy lives in the world. Today, his teaching continues to nourish many through the World Community for Christian Meditation.

Hesed Community makes this contemporary expression of the Benedictine contemplative tradition available to those who, in the midst of the frenetic pace and excessive stimulation of urban life, thirst for silence and spiritual depth. In fact, S. Barbara believes that this model of contemplative community in the city represents one prominent path for the future of monasticism, making monastic values more present and available to the world. In this regard, Hesed has developed varied forms of participation and commitment—extended family members, brothers and sisters, and Benedictine Oblates—as well as being open to the public, to accommodate a diverse range of people’s needs. Significantly, as a community, Hesed has remained non-residential, with S. Barbara being the only full-time resident. A unique take on Benedictine living, S. Barbara shares her conviction that, because the community comes together primarily for shared silent prayer, this has led to a depth of intimacy and caring that a more complex, intensive living arrangement might make more difficult, especially for those already raising families and juggling multiple commitments.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Cyprian Consiglio is a Camaldolese monk, musician, and teacher, as well as a personal friend and confrere. After ten years at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA, he has lived for nine years near Santa Cruz, CA, where he divides his time between solitude and extensive travel, performing and teaching around the world. He has been deeply involved in inter-religious dialogue for many years and is the author of Prayer in the Cave of the Heart: The Universal Call to Contemplation.

In our conversation, Cyprian distinguishes between what he sees as two forms of monasticism in the West: the familiar, institutionalized model and one arising from a more spontaneous, flexible contemplative impulse, manifesting across religious traditions in a variety of emergent forms. In this light, Cyprian discusses the sources that have inspired him in his own journey, from living as a monk in community to the less predetermined path of “hermit, preacher, and wanderer,” or Christian sannyasi, in the spirit of inter-religious pioneers Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux, OSB) and Bede Griffiths, OSB Cam.

In a significant contrast to Mary Ewing Stamps, who in an earlier interview identified the non-negotiables of monasticism as a leader, a rule, and a stable place (which is about as succinct a definition of the first form of [Benedictine] monasticism as you’ll likely find), Cyprian goes to the heart of the matter in identifying the primacy of the interior life and contemplative practice as the fundamental, nonnegotiable elements of monasticism, which in turn imbue the whole of a monk’s life and activity. With this more flexible definition in mind, Cyprian and I explore various forms of monastic community and itinerancy East and West, how to maintain a disciplined contemplative life on the move and without direct community support, and the critical necessity of daily practice, rootedness in tradition, and spiritual direction for the monk in the world.

While the distinction shouldn’t be drawn too starkly, I find Cyprian’s understanding of two forms of monasticism helpful and refreshing. Having myself been trained in the Camaldolese tradition, I tend to identify with a middle-ground, wherein the monastic institution meets, and ideally fosters, the kind of adaptability, spontaneity, and freedom of the second form. Hence, like Cyprian, I’ve also taken inspiration from the more flexible ascetical traditions of the Far East and the kinds of monastic or “lay monastic” communities they’ve established in the West (Cyprian speaks particularly of Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery (see interview here) and Mount Madonna Yoga Center, of which I have visited only the former). As Cyprian affirms, this is not to say that one form is better than the other, but it does help to clarify important differences in, say, vocational dispositions.

Incidentally, this is the same Cyprian who performs the music I use in the podcast…

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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